Jess takes a deep breath and twirls the new full-size Feelings Stick in her fingers. It's pretty much worthless with the guys and she's the only one who's actually allowed to touch it now, since Nick still glares the second he sees it and Winston uses it to feel for the remote from far away and Schmidt only uses it to dodge the Douchebag Jar, but sometimes it's just nice to have.
She clears her throat. "So I guess I should start by explaining why I've called you all here tonight. Thank you for coming, by the way."
"Here, to the living room?" Nick says, shrugging. "No problem."
Winston nods. "The jet-lag's a bitch, though."
"We will be reimbursed for travel, right?" Schmidt's face does that squinty scrunchy thing that means he's either trying super hard to concentrate or trying super hard to be sarcastic. They're both too close to the face he makes when he's trying super hard to do something else, which Jess found out the hard way, but there's a lock on the bathroom stall now. "Because my miles took a hit."
"The reason that we're here," she presses, "is because I need you talk to you guys. About the Brotherhood."
Nick blinks at her, and Winston blinks at her, and they both blink at each other while Schmidt squints some more. "Which Brotherhood are we talking? The Brotherhood of Justice? The Brotherhood of the Wolf?" He pauses. She's almost positive that it's concentration this time. "The… Ya-Ya Brotherhood? Is that an actual thing? No?"
"No," Nick says, "and I am actually embarrassed for you. What Brotherhood, Jess?"
Jess bites her lip and bunches her shoulders around her ears. "You know, the…" She drops her voice. "The Brotherhood of the Situational Pants."
"The wha— Why are you whispering?"
"It's a stage whisper," she whispers.
"We're the only ones here," Nick yells. She'd assume that he's trying to make a point, but he's just a naturally projectile person. "Also, we're not on stage!"
"I thought maybe it was like Fight Club. The first rule of the Brotherhood is that you do not talk about the Brotherhood, and the second rule of the Brotherhood is that you do not talk about the Brotherhood. And then the third one could have something to do with pleats." She flicks the feathers at one end of the Feelings Stick and watches the glitter float away. "All the world's a stage, Nick."
"And all this Schmidt's a manly player." Schmidt throws up both his hands. If there were an actual gang of LA Douchebags, Jess is sure this would be their sign. "Playa playaaaaa."
"Jar," Winston says, and squeezes his eyes shut. "Can we get back to the pants, please?"
"Here's the thing," she says. "Nick has his Jury Duty Pants, and Schmidt has his Lap Dance Pants, and you've got your Magic Velcro Pants –"
"They are tear away pants," he says, holding up a hand. "Tear. Away. Pants. Okay? No Velcro. They don't Velcro, they snap. Like 'oh snap, my pants.'"
Schmidt raises an eyebrow. "I thought those were your Easy Access Pants."
"See?" Jess exclaims, bouncing a little on the ottoman. "You all have pants! There are pants for every occasion, pants are clearly a thing. It's the Brotherhood of the Situational Pants! And those pants may or may not have special powers."
"Not." Nick's Turtle Face makes its first appearance. "They do not have special powers."
Schmidt snorts and stuffs a five in the jar. "Dude, speak for yourself."
"The point is that I live here now, and I have situations sometimes, ones that might occasionally call for superpowered pants, and I would like to get in on this action, maybe."
"Wait wait, lemme get this straight," Schmidt says, and scoots to the edge of the couch. "What you're effectively saying right now is that you… want to get into our pants."
"Jar," Nick groans. "Jess, seriously, I don't know what you're talking about. You don't know what you're talking about. And since nobody knows what the hell they're talking about, can we all just stop talking about it?"
Jess slumps and sniffs a little. "I bet Coach had pants," she grumbles, and suddenly Winston's wearing his Thoughtful Face.
Nick shakes his head. "No."
"I'm just saying, he did have his Bean Breathing Pants."
"Oh yeah." Schmidt smiles and slides his wallet back into his pocket. "The ones with the ventilated crotch."
"Oh my god, no!" Nick's yelling again, and the Turtle Face has turned a little red, and Jess is beginning to worry about his blood pressure. "The pants had holes because they were moth-ridden. They were pants that had coincidentally been eaten by bugs in convenient places. Okay? This is not a thing."
"The pants had a name." Winston sits back. "The pants were named for a specific situation."
Schmidt nods. "Kinda seems like a thing."
"Yes! Right? The Brotherhood lives!" Jess puts both arms above her head and feels a song coming on. "I get pants if I want to, so I won't be left behind, 'cause you've all got pants, and if I get pants, then you'll be friends of mine…" There's the unmistakable urge to get up and move — not a full-on victory dance, per se, just a little score! shimmy — but Nick springs up and skirts the coffee table and stares at her like he knows exactly what she wants to do, so she settles for tapping her feet a little and doing the safety dance in her head.
He turns to Winston and puts his hands on his hips. "You realize that, by going along with this, you've just handed Schmidt everything he needs to actually make bros happen."
"Hey," Winston says, "I simply pointed out the pants. I am never responsible for Schmidt."
Nick looks up at the ceiling, and Jess leans forward and holds out the Feelings Stick. "If you want, you can tell us why you feel like you can't acknowledge the existence of the Brotherhood. Is it because your pant powers have nothing to do with your penis?"
"Okay," Nick says, and disappears down the hallway.
Schmidt cranes his head as if it'll help him see around the corner. "C'mon, don't be like that, bromigo!" he calls, and Nick yells "Not a thing! In any language!" while Schmidt grins and claps Winston on the leg.
"Who else is pumped? I'm pumped. Personally, I've always suspected that my penis had superpowers. I mean, that whole region is magical, I be casting spells with that wand, you know, some abracadraba action, a little open sesame —"
"Schmidt," Jess cries, cringing. "Jar."
She slathers her bagel in cream cheese and frowns down at the piece of paper next to her plate. This is proving harder than she thought.
"What about Rambly Pants?" she says. "For those fun times when I physically can't stop talking, even though I'm mortified and making things worse and possibly scarring myself for life. Then I can just be like 'never fear, motor mouth, my pants have got this.'"
Schmidt shakes his head. "I'm not sure pants that powerful exist."
"Unless, wait, would Rambly Pants just make me ramblier? How do the super pant powers work, exactly?" She takes a bite of her bagel and chews thoughtfully. Schmidt obviously wants all the lap dances he can get and, from what she knows of beans, she doubts that Coach ever wanted his to suffocate, but does Nick actually want jury duty? "Maybe I need Unrambly Pants."
"Either way, you'd have to wear them all the time." Winston dribbles and clears a shot from somewhere near the corner. "All the time."
Nick shuffles in and glances over her shoulder, then props against the counter and pours himself some cereal. "Still, with the pants?"
He has bedhead, the kind of that makes it seem like all the little strands are trying to run away from his head at the same time and in totally different directions, and she nods and watches him chew his Cheerios until he looks vaguely uncomfortable.
Sadly, it is not the first time this has happened to her.
"Nothing." Her blink is a little too long, by like a split second, but enough to be noticeable, and it occurs to her that she might need a pair of Appropriate Eye Contact Pants. Just for weekends, or anything that takes place in public. "Yes, we are discussing my hypothetical pants. The possibility of pants in my future. Not like the Jetsons future, a more present-y future than that. The near future. Of my pants."
"Just a little brainstorming sesh, ain't nothin' but a thang," Schmidt says, concentrating hard on whatever he's typing. Her back is to him, but she can hear the squint. "For the record, judging from the last thirty seconds or so, I'm gonna go ahead and give a big thumbs up to the Rambly Pants."
"Cosigned," Winston says, and shoots again.
Nick looks confused, which is a lot like the Turtle Face, just with different eyebrows. "What's the deal with this, Jess? You don't even wear pants."
"Are you gonna yell and get all bent out of shape again?" she says, and he snorts some sort of incredulous laugh and throws a hand up and flings a spray of droplets from his spoon.
"I don't yell," he basically yells. "And when have I ever gotten bent out of shape? I don't… bend… ever."
"Really? Because you're louder than the average bear and it's raining milk on my bagel." He swipes at his mouth with the back of his hand, and she shrugs. "Which is fine, I'm a fan of both precipitation and dairy."
She blinks, quick like a bunny, then again, and maybe a couple more times, just to be on the safe side, and he peers at her strangely, doing that thing where he raises his eyebrows with his whole face.
"You okay there?"
"Yeah, no, I've just… got… milk." Schmidt snickers behind her, and she cringes. "In my eye. From the sudden shower of milk."
Her hands tear off a piece of bagel, then tear that piece into smaller pieces. "Look, I know that I am not typically what you'd call a pants person. There's the dresses, and the skirts, and then the skorts, and the occasional romper. But these aren't just any pants, okay? It's like finding your spirit animal. But the one that covers your butt. These are the pants that say 'hey, world, see this butt? It belongs here. This butt is a part of something special. It is a butt of the Brotherhood.'"
Nick closes his eyes and shakes his head. "No, Schmidt."
"Cool," Schmidt says, still typing. "Saved me some cash."
Jess pulls in a breath. "These are important pants," she says, and Nick sets aside his cereal and crosses his arms and nods.
She has no idea how she blinks this time, just that she does. "Okay?"
"Okay," he says again, coming forward to put his hands on the countertop and lean in until they're on the same level. "The pants are important to you, so the pants are important to me. Us." His face has changed, now — it's the one that's soft and sweet and patient, with his eyes big and bright, the one she knows from him singing in restaurants and forgiving her nakedness and detouring to Candy Cane Lane. "Show me what you've got."
It might have been a mistake to have fond memories related to the nakedness, even among all the rest them, because that's pretty much all she can think about now.
"Why?" she says, because he's already seen everything she has. "I mean, not why, clearly, because, the pants. Ze pantaloons. Los pantalones. All the possible pants."
Nick blinks. Like a totally normal person. "Are we no longer talking about pants?"
"Um, yes? What? No." Jess fumbles for her notes, trying to picture Nick in pants and not Nick dancing naked. "So at first I was thinking… Smarty Pants. Right? Because I teach, and it's kind of punny, and my glasses could be a clever accessory. But then I thought, okay, maybe they give me a brain boost while I'm in them and then revert to my regular brain when I'm out again. But what if they, like, absorb my brain when I first put them on, and that's the whole source of their superpower? So then when I take them off, my brain's been sucked into my pants, and I just have no brain."
She winces while Nick straightens and opens his mouth and closes it again. The eyebrows are back in full force. "Or I could have a head full of straw," she says, trying to salvage something. "Like the scarecrow. But in the big city, and with less crows than pigeons."
"Move on, Jess," Winston calls. "Just. Move on."
"Right. So. Party Pants! Fun in theory. Except I'm even less a party person than I am a pants person, and I'm not even sure I want to be a bigger party person than I am right now, and that's probably not the best use of the pants. And then there's, well…"
She spins a little on her stool, and Schmidt says "There's a party in my pants twenty four seven. Holla!" without even looking up from his laptop, and she turns back to Nick and spreads her hands.
"Really?" he says. "No call on that at all."
She shakes her head. "It was a stacked deck. I practically told him to."
Nick nods. "Point."
"Obviously the Party Pants are not going to work. Party Pants would be wasted on me. They need to go to someone who would appreciate them. Like, someone who uses 'party' as a verb." She tilts her head. "Someone like Cece."
"Nooooo no no no no." Schmidt slams his computer shut, making her turn around again. "There will be no pants for Cece. One, she doesn't live here. Two, even if she did live here, she'd still go pantsless. Because three, it is imperative that we not cross the streams. You can do whatever you want with your butt, Jess, just leave hers out of it. Bros are over here, Cece's butt is way over there, and never the twain shall meet."
Winston rubs the side of his face. "Jar?"
"No," Jess says, swiveling back around, "I think that one's on me, too."
"Not even a bad pun," Nick says, and purses his lips appreciatively. "Kinda proud of you, buddy."
"What can I tell you, I'm growing," Schmidt says. "And it's better for me, just logistically-speaking, if Cece never wears pants. That way, when my meat finds her stream, there's no twain in the mix blocking up the bridge."
"There it is," Winston mutters, and Nick points emphatically and yells, "Jar, Schmidt, jar!"
Jess sighs, chewing one of the bagel bits. "It's my fault, I enabled him. This is how it ends. I am enabling Schmidt, and I have no pants. I am doomed to die an evil Schmidt enabler without any pants of my own."
She sucks stray cream cheese off her thumb while Nick watches her without blinking at all — this look doesn't have a label, but it definitely belongs somewhere between the Focus Face he wears during video games and the dazed and confused thing he does when he's tipsy — and her tongue darts out to lick her lips and dip into each corner, because she can't enable Schmidt and be bereft of pants and have stuff on her face. There's only so much a girl can take.
"Did I get it?"
"Get, no, yeah, you're good," Nick says. It cracks a little, and he clears his throat and combs his fingers through his hair. Which somehow makes the bedhead worse. "What about the Dirty Dancing Pants? You've already got those. And you've got the dancing and the women's rights down, but who knows, they could keep you out of corners, help you do the lift, maybe let you carry some watermelons. Could be the time of your life."
Her mouth drops open, just a little — he's ticked off the best parts, all her favorite things, and she's shocked that he remembers anything at all. He smiles, and she stares, and something swirls around in her stomach, and suddenly Dirty Dancing Pants sound like the best thing ever.
Which brings her back to the nakedness.
She pinches herself under the counter and blinks, too fast and too random and too many times to count.
"Seriously, Jess, what is with the blinking?" he says. "It's like Morse code."
"It's the milk. It's sort of… milky? I think my eyes are lactose intolerant." She sniffs, shredding at her breakfast again. "The Dirty Dancing Pants don't count. After I got all my stuff back from Spencer I asked Schmidt to burn them, and he cut them up for cleaning rags instead. Now they're just little pants pieces."
Winston gasps, and Nick glares somewhere past her shoulder, and Schmidt makes an indignant sound and says, "What? They were a cotton poly blend. It's perfect for the stainless."
Nick rolls his eyes. "We'll figure it out. Okay? We will find you some pants. I promise."
He reaches out and puts a hand on her arm. His skin is warm and surprisingly soft, and his eyes are even warmer and softer, and she doesn't know if the pounding between her ears is her head or her heart or Winston's stupid basketball, but all of the sudden she can't breathe.
"Yeah," she says, breathless and too bright. "Okay, great. Yay, pants! Then I'm just gonna…" She slips her arm out from under his and stumbles off the stool and out of the apartment and into the elevator, slumping against the wall as the doors close her in.
She's wearing her favorite pajama pants, the pink ones with the fuzzy stripes. They might not have superpowers, but right now, she'll take what she can get.
Cece opens the door, and Jess scuttles around her and into her room and flops facedown on the bed.
"Uh, hi," Cece calls from the doorway.
Jess holds up a hand. "Not yet," she groans. "I just need a minute."
It's all mushed and muffled, swallowed in Cece's massive duvet, and sort of sounds like she's talking with a mouthful of peanut butter, but Cece's been her best friend for as long as she can remember, and this actually happens more often than Jess would like to admit, so translation shouldn't be much of a problem.
The bed shifts as Cece sits down, and Jess whimpers a bit and breathes hot air into the fabric and feels the stroke of soft fingers in her hair.
"Time," Cece says, and Jess turns her head and tries to focus through the fog on her glasses.
"You have to swear that you won't say 'I told you so.'"
"Fine. Unless it's about you and Nick and feelings. Or the fact that Schmidt gets pedicures. Then I make no promises."
"I didn't know that I liked him!" Jess squeaks. Cece gapes and goes up on her knees, and Jess rolls to one side and props up on one elbow. "And hey, you also seem sort of surprised by that development."
Cece blinks. There is a whole lot of blinking going on today. "You have feelings for Nick?"
"That's what you just said."
"I was kidding! I mean yeah, I said it. But let's be real, okay, this is you we're talking about. I was pretty much expecting the pedicures." Jess drops back down, her legs still hitting the edge of the bed in that awkward in-between place that keeps them from bending, and Cece shifts until she's stretched out next to her.
"You wanna tell me what happened?"
Jess takes a deep breath and blows it back out again. "So I was eating breakfast and trying to figure out my butt's spirit animal, and Nick came in and yelled at me and threw milk at my bagel and cream cheese. But he remembered all my favorite things, and there were hands and eyes and naked parts, and he promised to find my pants. And then I ran away in my pajamas, and left my keys and my purse. And my bra."
She watches Cece blink again, twice this time, and wonders why it's weird when she does it but Cece somehow looks like hot human Bambi.
"You had sex with Nick?"
"What?" Jess shrieks, and chokes on her own spit. "No! Were you even listening to the story?"
"Oh I'm listening," Cece says, clapping her on the back as she coughs it out. "I heard all about your bagel and your cream cheese and whatever else you're naming your anatomy these days. And I'm sorry, honey, you know I'm cool with all your parts, whatever you want to call them, but I want nothing to do with Nick's milk."
Jess presses her lips together. "In hindsight, I see how that could be confusing." As euphemisms go, the bagel has a lot of potential. "If it helps, the foody parts were all actually food and the naked parts were only in my head."
"Really doesn't help at all. But to tell you the truth, it's a little disappointing." Cece scooches closer and folds her hands under her cheek. "I thought he was seeing somebody."
"Yeah, that didn't work out," Jess says, playing with the edge of Cece's sleeve. "But she still taught me the Karate Kid kick, which was nice. Then one of the guys from her mailroom tried to show her his package, and there was a small incident with a stapler, and she had to go away for a while."
"So he's single, and you're single, and now you have feelings."
Jess swallows and shrugs, the swirly thing swimming around in her stomach again. "Or maybe just lactose intolerance."
"Oh, sweetie." Cece curls into her side, so their feet are tangled and their foreheads are touching and Jess has to go cross-eyed to focus. "It's okay to like him. He's a likeable guy. He's the most likeable guy in your entire apartment."
"See?" Jess mumbles. "I can't like him. I live with him."
"So like him and come live with me again."
Jess thinks about Cece's slick room and the rest of Cece's slick apartment and sighs. "But then I'd have to leave all the brick, and the birdcat, and the Brotherhood. And I'd be changing my whole life for a guy. And I'd never get my pants."
"You mentioned that," Cece says. "What is the deal with these pants?"
"It's a thing. You're not allowed to have any, I checked." Jess scratches at her nose, and the movement smushes their bangs together 'til her eyebrows are itchy, too. "Okay, go, fix it. That's what Ceces do best."
"Sorry, Cece can't fix this one. You either tell him the truth and hope it works out, or you keep your mouth shut and hope you get over it. It's a crapshoot. Maybe you get your bagel buttered, and maybe drive yourself crazy. Er."
Jess frowns. "Is there a selective amnesia option I could try? Then I could just forget that I like him and never get earwormed with the Saved by the Bell song again."
"But do you want to forget?"
"Have you ever had that song stuck in your head?"
"Jess." For a second, Cece's all about her Bitch, I Mean Business Face, and then it breaks and her eyes go all exasperated. "God, you say everything out loud but what really matters to you. You want me to fix it? Fine. Tell him."
"Right. Okay." Jess takes a deep breath. "So you're saying I should never tell him."
Cece rolls her eyes. "Yeah, that's exactly what I said. Just tell him!"
It sounds so simple when Cece says it, but when Jess tries to picture looking at Nick and opening her mouth and letting the words fall out, the swirly thing that's living in her stomach just might make her bagel come back up. Which is bad. Really bad. This is a very expensive duvet.
"What if he laughs and hates me and things are weird forever?"
"He's not gonna hate you," Cece says, hugging her a little. "You did laugh at the man's junk, so there may be some payback on that one. But he's not gonna hate you. You're impossible to hate. And really, at this point, how much weirder can it get in there?"
Jess smiles into Cece's shoulder, and they stay that way until her legs have gone numb from the line of the mattress.
There's no way she can do this. But it's nice that Cece seems to think she can.
"Thanks. All better." She sits up and straightens her glasses, then tries to rub some feeling back into her shins. "Sorry you're still in the dark about the pedicures."
"Yeah, well, the truth'll come out sooner or later," Cece says, sprawled flat on her back. "I've been in bed with that boy's feet, and trust me, those puppies are softer than a baby's ass."
She hides out until the call time for Cece's early evening shoot, so by the time she heads back, it's late enough that Nick should have already left for work. So that's one day down. Now she just needs to figure out a way to avoid him for the rest of her life.
Then she knocks on the door, and Schmidt swings it open, and Nick's standing in the middle of the living room, rubbing his forehead with one hand and holding his phone to his ear with the other.
His arms drop to his sides, and he's wearing a face she's never seen before. "Are you okay?"
"Um." She gulps. "Yes?"
Winston's eyes swing back and forth between them, and Schmidt stares at the floor like it's the most fascinating thing ever, and Nick just sort of laughs.
Strangely enough, he does not sound all that amused.
"Oh good," he says. "That's good to know, since you took off and were gone all day and we thought the crackhead in the alley had killed you for your hair. What is wrong with you? I don't, I can't even, where have you been?"
"I just… felt like I needed to walk off my bagel," she says, and cringes. Stupid euphemism.
He nods, in that spastic, slightly-crazy way that probably means bad things. "You needed to walk it off. For eight and a half hours. With no keys, no phone, and no actual clothing."
She opens her mouth, at a loss, because Cece'd still had her overalls and she was kind of hoping he'd forgotten that part.
"It's… endurance training. For a pajama marathon. We're walking for victims of insomnia."
"Oh my god," he groans, smearing his fingers down his face. "You know what, it doesn’t even matter. Just, stop running away from me! Jesus, Jess."
He storms past her and slams the door behind him, and she jumps even though she tries not to.
Winston clears his throat. "He's really happy that you're back."
"So happy," Schmidt says. "Don't even worry about the door thing. That was the sweet, sweet sound of barely-contained joy."
They look as anxious and uncomfortable as Nick had angry, and Jess hangs her head. Why'd she have to go and have feelings? Feelings suck. Feelings ruin everything.
"Sorry, guys," she mumbles, and shuffles down the hall to her room.
She curls into a ball on her bed, burrowing into her pillow, and pulls the covers over her head.
They're nowhere near as soft as Cece's, but it still feels like home.
When she wakes up and shoves the covers away, her stomach is growling, she's sweating in her overalls, and it's pitch black outside her window.
Also, there are two man-shaped blurs standing over her bed, which kind of trumps everything else.
She squeaks out something like a scream, hands fumbling for wherever her glasses have fallen. Then one of the shadows just hands them to her, and she scrambles to put them on, and oh look, it's a Winston-shaped shadow.
She stares at him, and at Schmidt, and slumps, propped on the headboard at an uncomfortable angle.
"Is this where you guys finally crazy murder me in my bed? Because I'll be honest, at this point, it wouldn't be entirely unwelcome."
Schmidt's whipped out his Faux-Pas Face, holding his hands up and sputtering apologies, but Winston looks disturbed. "Did you really think we were psycho killers? I think you thought we were psycho killers. And unless you were planning to stab me with those glasses, we seriously need to reevaluate your priorities."
"I have very little sense of self-preservation," she says. "It's a sickness."
"Okay, we're veering wildly off-topic here," Schmidt says. "But Winston's right. We do need to talk, Jess. Because what happened today? Not cool. So not cool. And not hot, either. You know what it was, it was room temperature."
"I was totally fine! I was with Cece. And for the record, the crackhead's name is Kevin, he's kind of down on his luck, but he's a very nice person who just happens to have a problem with controlled substances. And also wigs."
"And just how were we supposed to know that?" Winston says. "Are we psychic psycho killers now?"
"I left here in my pajamas," she says, going out on a limb and guessing that he isn't referring to Kevin's hair habit. She still can't quite decide if it's any healthier than the crack. "Where else would I be?"
Winston snorts. "You mean the marathon isn't happening? Damn, and I was gonna make a pledge."
Jess opens her mouth to answer that, but really, she's got nothing. "You could've called, her number's in my phone."
"Wow, we never thought of that, ever," Schmidt says, shooting her a look that makes her wince. It's possible that her phone has been passcode protected since the "Danny Matthews Dials Myanmar" incident of 2010. "And since I've been categorically barred from any knowledge of Cece's legal address, we were completely in the dark, here. Have I mentioned how not cool that is?"
"I get it, I'm not cool," she says. "I don't think this should be news to anyone by now, but okay. I really am sorry if I worried you guys."
"There's no 'if' about it." Schmidt rubs a hand over the back of his head. "We worried. When you do stuff like this, not cool stuff, we're going to worry. And when we worry, Jess, bad things happen. Nick freaks out and calls every hospital in a ten mile radius. Winston stress dribbles until his fingers bleed. I have a tendency to go prematurely grey. And some salt-and-pepper might work in the distant future, a little Clooney swagger, you know, gettin' my Gere on, but right now? Not a good look. So you know what would be awesome? If you could not do it."
Winston nods. "That's where the pants come in."
She groans and rolls her head to one side. "Can we forget about the pants? The pants were a bad idea. And I've said 'pants' like three hundred times since yesterday. The word has lost all meaning."
"Now that's a shame," he says, and tosses a brown paper bag on the bed. "Guess you won't be needing those, then."
"What?" Winston crosses his arms, and Schmidt folds his hands together, and she reaches for the bag. Her hand slips inside and closes around something soft, and she pulls the fabric free and gasps. "You guys got me pants?"
"I wanted to go with like a, a Seven jean, you know," Schmidt says, "or a nice J Brand cargo…"
She scrambles off the bed, balling the waistband in her fists and holding them up to her body. "You got me purple pants?"
"It was closing time at the farmer's market," Winston says. "We worked with what we had."
"You got me purple parachute pants?"
"They're polyester too, okay?" Schmidt cries, dropping his chin to his chest. "Please stop adding adjectives, you're only making it worse."
Winston pats him on the back. "Before we traumatize Schmidt any further with fashion," he says, "they're temporary. We just thought that maybe, if you had pants, you could stop all this craziness."
Her brain is in the middle of composing a jaunty tune for purple polyester placeholder parachute pants when she actually processes that. Her face falls, the pants slip free on one side, and her heart plummets in her chest.
"You got me Sanity Pants?"
"We got you Big Girl Pants."
Before she can say anything else, Schmidt holds up a hand. "Yeah, I know," he says. "On the surface, little bit sexist. But hear us out."
She supposes he should get points for seeing the inherently problematic, and nods cautiously. "I'm listening."
"You have a special brand of crazy. And most of the time, that's not a problem. We like your crazy. We have learned to cope with your crazy. Embrace it, even. Your crazy is fine with us. But things like this… Nick's got a point, okay? And I hate to say that, I really do, like, it's literally making me nauseous right now, but there it is."
He takes a deep breath, looking more serious than she's ever seen him. "I don't know what happened today, Jess. But whatever it was, I know it happened here. And you ran away from it. I mean, you're the one who keeps saying that we're a family. You shouldn't have to run from your family. Especially not the family you choose. We're the people you should be able to run to."
"And therein lies the power of the pants," Winston says. "You have a problem, you stick around, you deal. Like a big girl. In your Big Girl Pants."
"And come on, aren't we all a little crazy sometimes? Winston with his competitive thing, and me with my cleanliness thing, and Nick with his… Nick thing." Schmidt shakes his head. "Let's just… be crazy together. Like families do."
Jess looks at them both, these guys she didn't know six months ago who are now such a huge part of her life. These guys who get worried about her, and got her pants, and gave her a home, and are her family.
She may have feelings for Nick, but she loves them all. And that's kind of the best feeling ever.
"The thing is…" She swallows past the lump in her throat and blinks her eyes clear behind her glasses, clutching her perfect purple polyester parachute pants close. "I was just gonna say, um, I think it's technically 'big girl panties.'"
Schmidt's shrugs, smirking. "Hey, panties work, panties are good, too. I'd just need to see them in action to properly validate their power."
She doesn't have the heart to send him to the jar.
She's been trying to fall asleep for approximately one billion hours, but she can't seem turn off her brain and the nap of despair has screwed with her body clock and she's gone from counting sheep to cuddling sheep to casting sheep in an all-sheep revival of My Fair Lady, so she finally gives up and climbs out of bed.
It's like three in the morning. Saved by the Bell has to be on somewhere.
Flashes of light spill into the hallway, and she can faintly hear the muffled sound of the TV as she creeps closer.
It could be Winston, watching one of the many sports stations in their illegal cable package. It could be Schmidt, glued to one of the endless infomercials for kitchen gadgets and skincare systems he swears he doesn't watch until a mysterious box arrives four to six weeks later. But she has a feeling it's neither, and she's been having a lot of feelings lately, and the sea of purple polyester swimming around her legs says she should probably go with that.
Jess blows out a breath that makes her bangs flutter. "Pants don't fail me now," she mutters, and peeks around the corner.
"Hey," she calls softly. "I didn't hear you come in. I think the sheep were singing too loud."
Nick just sits stock-still on the couch and stares straight ahead, a beer in one hand, the remote control in the other, and she grabs a handful of pants and takes a few tentative steps toward him, glancing at the TV. "What are you… oh my god, are you, you're watching Mac and Me? I love this one. I used to do that thing with my straws, but it never actually brought me an alien."
He reaches out with the remote, and the picture flips to an ESPN station, the one with all the basketball in afros and knee socks and tiny, tiny shorts.
"Right. Or this works, too. Go team." She makes a break for the corner of the couch, her legs curled under her, and he sets his beer on the table and tosses the remote by her knee and starts to get up, and she panics. "Nick, don't, just wait a minute, okay?"
He stops, still perched at the edge of the couch cushion, and she twists her fingers together.
"Well," she starts, "it has come to my attention that my actions this morning were of the uncool variety, and I wanted to apologize for that. And any subsequent freakouts it may have caused." Nick is nodding, almost to himself, hands on his knees like he's ready to spring. She knows the feeling. "If you'd like to take your turn on the Jess Sucks train, there just happens to be one pulling into the station. Go on and punch that ticket. All aboard the Jess Express, next stop, Suckytown. Population, me."
He runs a hand through his hair — it's gotten too long again, which is probably why the bedhead runs rampant in the mornings — and she squirms a little.
"Um, if you could just say something at this juncture, that would be great. I mean, I know it's not really about me right now, but you've been yelling at me for… well, ever, and I've kind of gotten used to the yelling now, so this new silent thing is a little like Chinese water torture, but with words. Or, you know, without words. Since you're silent."
She peers at his profile, but it's impossible to make out his expression exactly. The half of his face she can see is weary, which might just be work, but it's also a little… wrecked. Not quite the Destroyed Face of failed four year relationships, but definitely in that family. Like a second cousin, or a Great Aunt Ethel.
"Oh," she says, and something in her chest aches. "Okay. I get it. I'd upgrade my suck level, but it's really not about me."
She breathes around the ache and scoots closer. Regardless of her feelings, he's her friend. She can do this. Her superpowered pants said so. "You know, you can talk about her, if you need to."
"Her?" Nick snaps his head around, his face startled and spooked. "Her who?"
His voice is sharp and completely confused, but at least he's talking to her. And he's not even yelling. That's got to be a step in the right direction. "Um…" She clears her throat. "Julia?"
"Ju— Seriously?" It's a weirdly whispered yell. Perhaps she spoke too soon. "What is even happening right now?"
"I don't know! Unless, wait, is this about Caroline? Because you can talk about her, too, I am an equal opportunity listener. Though I gotta say, it's a little out of left field—"
"Oh my god, I don't want to talk about Caroline," he groans, pressing his fingers into his eyes. "Or Julia. Or the drunk girl from last week who spilled her lemon drop in my lap. Okay?"
"Sure, okay," she says quickly, but he seems to be beyond hearing her now.
"You know what else I don't want to do, Jess? I don't want to think of you as a bro. Can we not do that? It's just, it's wrong on so many levels."
"Oh." Her own voice sounds thin and hollow in her ears, and she swallows. She's not sure where it came from, but there it is. She felt too much and freaked him out and now Nick doesn't want her in the Brotherhood. "Yeah, don't even, it's fine. Forget about it."
She unfolds herself from the couch. Maybe it's not really running if she walks really slowly. "I'm gonna go… back to bed," she mumbles.
He snorts. "Of course you are." She turns in the path of the television, and he pulls his eyebrows together. "What are you wearing?"
Jess looks down to the string at her waist and the ties at her calves and the endless folds of fabric in between, then squares her shoulders and holds her head high. No matter what Nick thought, Schmidt and Winston still want her, and she has a purple badge of Brotherhood that says so.
"Pants. I am wearing pants. Is that a problem?"
"You tell me," he says. He stands to get a closer look, effectively blocking her exit, his head tilting to one side. "They're like Hammer pants. If Hammer were about to morph into the Incredible Hulk."
There's a rush in her ears, so sudden it makes her lightheaded, and she may be imagining it, but her legs are starting to tingle.
"You know what? I happen to like my pants. These pants were a gift. They're my Big Girl Pants. And I thought maybe they could make me talk to you instead of running away, and tell you that I've been having feelings, feelings about you singing to me and pointing your feet at me and breaking up with my boyfriend and, okay, dancing naked to Jamaican music. I have feelings about all the nakedness. And your hands. And your crazy hair. And the way your nose always kind of looks like you're pressed against a window. But the pants can't do that, because you don't want me to have pants. You don't want me in your precious Brotherhood. You don't want my butt to belong. And whatever power I'm feeling from the pants right now is probably just a side effect of polyester on legs that have not been shaved recently, so yes, Nick, I am going back to bed."
It occurs to her, with the echo hanging in the air, that she may be the one yelling now. And somewhere in there, either he'd moved or she had, because they're head to head and toe to toe and her Miss Day Discipline Finger is stabbing him in the chest.
She tries to step back, and he reaches up and catches her hand and holds her there.
"It is about you, okay?" he says. His eyes are dark, and her eyes are wide, and no one is blinking now. "God, it's all about you."
The swirly thing in her stomach spins like a top. "Okay," she whispers, "I'm confused."
He smiles, but his eyes throw sparks. "Right."
Then his head dips low and his lips are on hers, and he hauls her against him while her hand tangles in his too-long hair. She gasps, and he swallows the sound and licks into her mouth, his fingers finding her hips and digging in deep.
It's hot and hungry and desperate – the arm locked around his shoulders, the leg pressed between her thighs. His tongue slides against hers, and his teeth scrape her lower lip, and she can see why Nick yells all the time, if this is how it feels inside his skin.
"What the hell is going on out here?"
Schmidt's voice makes them freeze, faces still fused, bodies still locked together.
"Wake Forest versus Golden State. And Nick and Jess are… doing stuff." Winston yawns. "Good game."
Jess loosens her hold and looks to her left. Winston's already closing his door, but Schmidt adjusts his sleep mask and puts his hands on his hips.
"Have you no sense of decency? It is the middle of the night. I can hear you over my white noise machine. And I distinctly remember selecting the mating call of the humpback whale, not the mating call of my humping roommates." He turns and heads down the hallway. "Go do stuff somewhere else, that couch isn't Scotchgarded!"
Then the door clicks, and the silence sets in, and it's just her and Nick again, still standing so close she can feel him every time she takes a breath.
"So. Awkward." She laughs a little, but he shakes his head, and his eyes are serious, and this has to be his Sexy Face, because her stomach flips and her hand fists in his shirt.
"Not if we don't let it be." He shrugs. "I like you, Jess. It is what it is."
She lets out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. The feelings hadn't actually ruined anything. She has feelings, and he has feelings, and they are having feelings together. With tongues.
Though there is that one thing to consider.
"But I can still be in the Brotherhood, right?" she says. "Because I really like my pants. My pants are magical. And I don't have to be a bro, it could be like a 'Jess and the Brotherhood' deal. Like Josie and the Pussycats. Just take a moment to ponder the possibilities. We could have our own theme song."
He laughs and kisses her again.
Sunday mornings are for lesson plans, so nothing has changed there. She usually does them in her room, but today she's propped on the couch, in her pants, her legs on Nick's lap and his hand on her knee, and it feels like the whole world is different.
His thumb is rubbing circles on the underside of her calf, and she's read the same sentence three times now, so this may be counterproductive.
"I feel that I need some time to adjust," Schmidt says, spinning the Feelings Stick like a baton.
Nick cues up a new game with Winston, moving both hands to the controller and magically bringing back her concentration. "Really, Schmidt? It's not that serious."
"Says you. You have Jury Duty Pants, man. They're only good once a year. A lap dance is forever."
"Probably a sign that you're paying too much," Winston mutters.
Jess grins and pretends not to notice Schmidt's glaring. "I didn't even realize it was a thing!" he says. "It's like a frat somebody hazed me into against my will, then kicked me out of once I'd shaved my head."
"Not a hypothetical, by the way," Nick says, glancing at her while Winston nods.
"Totally happened. But it was his balls."
Schmidt scoots forward on the ottoman, looking at her so earnestly she raises an eyebrow. "Listen, I know I gave you the pants. It was my idea to give you the pants. And I stand by them, even with the polyester. So my soul searching is in no way a reflection on you, just the existence of the Brotherhood itself. It is a real thing, and it's growing, and changing, and I'm still coming to terms with that. And the fact that you don't have bro parts."
"That's because she's not a bro!"
Jess reaches up to rub Nick on the shoulder, smiling when she feels some of the tension roll out beneath her fingertips. He's making his Focus Face, and Winston's making his Winning Face, and she loves all these guys so much it hurts.
"Maybe it's not a Brotherhood," she says, looking back at Schmidt. "Maybe it's just a family. With pants."
He chews his lip thoughtfully, crossing his legs under his kimono.
"Maybe we can get you a strap on."
"Schmidt," the rest of them groan at once. "Jar."